Myanmar, once known as the rice bowl of Asia, still boasts a surplus of hundreds of thousands of tonnes of rice and maize. Yet a tenth of the population is going hungry, according to the first U.N. food security report on the country.
“The reality is that this country has got massive potential,” said Chris Kaye, country representative for the U.N. World Food Programme (WFP), which has been operating in Myanmar since 1994.
“Not only is it a major producer of rice but also many other agricultural products. There should not be a need for food assistance in Myanmar,” said Kaye.
After the devastation wrought by Cyclone Nargis last May, affected townships saw rice harvests fall by about a third. But overall food production in the country is expected to be satisfactory thanks to favourable weather and increased use of high-yielding rice seeds, says the joint report from WFP and the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), released in late January.
Yet many states are experiencing food deficits because of regional disparities and limited agricultural and financial resources.
Almost 35 percent of Burmese children under the age of five are underweight, according to the U.N. Development Programme. The WFP/FAO report says more than 5 million people live below the food poverty line, and WFP is providing food aid to around 2.6 million people across the country.
Emergency food assistance is still needed in many areas including the cyclone-affected Irrawaddy Delta, the report says. Other priority regions are Chin and northern Rakhine states in the west, where rights groups say ethnic groups suffer abuses at the hands of the military junta.
Human Rights Watch released a report last month about the mainly Christian Chin people, saying hundreds of thousands have fled Myanmar for fear of persecution by the government only to face discrimination and abuse in neighbouring India. India denies the charge.
In remote Chin, a rat infestation triggered by bamboo flowering in early 2007 has affected food supplies, the report says. Kaye told AlertNet that the state, the poorest in Myanmar, is “very poorly served by development assistance and there’s been limited support from the government.”
Northern Rakhine is home to the Rohingyas, an oppressed Muslim minority who have recently turned up on the shores of Thailand and Indonesia with tales of abuse by both the Thai and Myanmar militaries. The Thai army has admitted to towing hundreds of Rohingya far out in the Andaman Sea on boats before cutting them adrift.
The WFP/FAO report says food security and malnutrition levels in Rakhine deserve “immediate humanitarian attention.”
An earlier WFP assessment in June found the cost of rice had increased 75 percent compared to the previous year, and more than half of the population was drinking water from an unprotected source.
“The restrictions on the movement of people, goods and commodities in northern Rakhine state are really at the forefront of the reasons why levels of food insecurity are what they are,” Kaye said.
There are a number of regions where further analysis is needed, he added. WFP is negotiating with the U.N Children’s Fund (UNICEF) to conduct a nutrition survey in northern Rakhine, and there will be a more detailed assessment in Chin in March.
In areas affected by the cyclone, usually the food basket of the country, food production will likely take some time to recover. Nine months into the response to the crisis, agriculture is the most cash-starved sector, receiving less than a third of required funds, according to the United Nations.